Author’s Note: This post was originally published on November 6, 2014. It has been updated and reposted.
I’ve been having this recurring dream, and it’s just about as obvious as they come. I’m taking care of a small kitten—sometimes, it’s a puppy—and all of a sudden I realize I haven’t given it any food. In a panic, I try to put the kitten in a bag while I run to the store so I don’t have to leave it alone.
When your inner child shows up in the middle of the night demanding to be fed, is it always with such a guilt trip?
Adult life asks so much of us, it can be easy to forget there is a childlike essence in there too. The number of moments requiring self-control seems to grow with each passing year. And while I generally think of myself as a playful, fun-loving person, I notice that when I take breaks from writing, drawing, or gardening, that the opportunities for that childlike energy to express itself are fewer. I realize now that creative work is the place where impulses to play and to imagine run free for me. When I feel my childlike essence start to flicker, it’s a signal to give myself space to explore and create.
Because it’s not enough to acknowledge your inner child — you have to learn to nurture and embrace it. For those of us who had difficult childhoods, this can be a tricky thing to do. Looking backwards can raise childhood fears and wounds. But by mining your memories for joy instead of pain, you may find that you’re healing your inner child in the process.
How to embrace your inner child
If, like mine, yours is waking you up in the middle of the night, here are ten ideas to reconnect with your inner child.
Do a happy dance
The beauty of a happy dance is that it’s deliberately not a “good” dance. Don’t overthink it, don’t do it in front of the mirror. (Close your eyes if you have to!) Do get someone else to do it with you, as studies show joy has significantly more impact when shared.
Maybe you have a song you always use to get the good vibes going. Maybe there’s an occasion (my husband and I happy dance when we get good news!) or a specific move that always makes you smile. The key is a moment of uninhibited self-expression — something that makes your inner child feel safe to come out and play.
Make a joylist
It’s like a to-do list, but better! Only fun things allowed here. Things like “Make pancakes” and “Go to the movies” and “Run around in the park.”
This can be a challenging exercise for those of us who were trained to filter everything through a lens of productivity. If this is you, here are some categories that might help you kickstart your joylist planning: something a visitor to your town might do, things that always make you laugh, an activity you turn to when your mental health needs a boost.
Set a timer (and ignore it)
Schedule a pocket of time free from responsibility. Set your timer (it doesn’t matter if it’s 10 minutes or an hour!) and walk away from your phone, watch, alarm clock, anything that might remind you time is ticking. The goal here is to let go of “busy” — to reject that adult notion that there is never enough time. In this moment, there’s nothing but time! And you can do whatever you want in it!
When you were a kid, you painted or collected seashells or climbed trees for hours without noticing the time going by. What can you do to access that feeling of freedom and abundance now?
Look at large-scale art
Remember how big everything looked when you were little? Large objects, like these balloon-shaped sculptures by Katharina Grosse, trigger a perspective shift that reminds you of what it was like to be small. Even better if the art is full of color and pattern. The swirls on the balloons remind me of the bouncy balls I used to get from the vending machines at the grocery store as a kid.
Go on an adventure
I was a kid that went on a lot of nature walks. I used to come home with all kinds of mundane treasures foraged from the woods: pinecones, oddly shaped stones, red fall leaves, feathers. This summer I discovered trail running and it feels like my grown-up equivalent. I’m not much of a runner but there’s something so fun about being in the woods and jumping over rocks and roots, I never seem to notice I’m actually running.
If running isn’t your thing, maybe try a hike. Even simpler, step outside your regular routine to take tiny adventures. Maybe it’s a new park for playtime, a different route to work, or a shift in scenery when you’re walking the dog.
Play with your kids’ toys
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten completely absorbed in Graham’s magnatiles. At the start, I play the part of patient assistant, handing him pieces or helping him figure out which shape goes where. Fast forward ten minutes and he’s moved on to something new and I’m still sitting there fully distracted by my own creation.
Depending on your kid, this might be something you try after they go to bed. Or, if you don’t have little ones in your house, try playing with something you loved as a kid. Maybe it’s blocks or Lego, a Lite Brite or a set of bright, waxy crayons. Wander into the toy aisle and see what you come away with.
Write a letter
Choose someone who helped you find joy as a child. Maybe it was a caretaker, a teacher, or a friend. Maybe it’s someone you never met — an author, artist, or even a fictional character. Thank them for whatever gift they gave your younger self. In the process, you may find that you’ve uncovered a forgotten joy that could help you connect with your inner child.
My grandmother is no longer with me, but to her I’d write: “I’ll never forget those trips to the art store where you let me choose anything I wanted to bring home and learn. Or how you patiently sat with me for as long as it took to figure it out.” My love of crafting began on these trips with my grandmother. I feel close to her and to my inner child any time my hands are making something. Which brings me to my next tip…
Make something (just for fun)
The most important thing about inner child work? That it’s not work! Spend an afternoon creating something without mind for purpose, function, or side-hustle.
When you were a kid you created things every day just for the fun of it. But as an adult many passion projects become chores. By doing something you love that isn’t worth money, you’re more likely to be learning or exploring something.
Revisit something you loved as a child
What was your favorite movie as a child? Music album? Chapter book? Think about the media that made you feel good and revisit it. That might mean a tv marathon or digging out the first CD you ever owned. But it doesn’t have to be that literal. Maybe thinking about these experiences opens up a new avenue for staying connected to that nostalgia.
You could cook up a dish from one of your favorite stories or search the internet for a poster from your first concert to hang on your wall. Think about this one as a love letter to your inner child — a way of connecting to that feeling of delight and discovery.
Try something you’ve wanted to do forever
When we’re kids, we learn things every day. With so many skills just around the corner, there’s less trepidation behind trying something new. As we age, it’s a different story.
How many times have you put off starting a new hobby? A new recipe? A new… anything? Take this as an invitation to choose one thing you’ve wanted to do forever and just do it! Remember how many times you tried to ride a bike / dive into the deep end / get that perfect four-square spin until you learned how to do it? You’ve got this.
How you know when your inner child needs attention? What do you do to get back in touch with it?
If you need a little help, here are 50 ways to find more joy every day. It’s free!